Former city worker’s lawsuit alleges FMLA, overtime violations

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 10/4/2018, 6 a.m.
For 11 years, Dikiviya Howell was considered a valuable city employee with an unblemished record and a willingness to work ...

For 11 years, Dikiviya Howell was considered a valuable city employee with an unblemished record and a willingness to work extra hours to ensure the job was done.

But her status changed this year after the single mother was forced to stay home to care for two seriously ill children, and she was fired in June for being “absent without leave.”

In a federal lawsuit she filed last month seeking reinstatement and back pay, Ms. Howell paints a picture of city management that she alleges fails to protect employees and, instead, deliberately violates city policies and federal laws, mistreating workers and eliminating pay they are owed.

So far, city officials have had no response to the lawsuit that potentially could undermine Mayor Levar M. Stoney’s effort to portray his administration as a caring champion of City Hall workers.

“The city has been served with the complaint and will respond in a timely manner, but does not otherwise comment on pending litigation,” City Attorney Allen L. Jackson stated in response to a Free Press query.

As outlined in the suit that attorney Nichole B. Vanderslice filed on her behalf, Ms. Howell began working at City Hall in 2006, with problems developing after she accepted a position in 2014 as a tax enforcement officer in the Department of Finance.

In that position, the suit states, her responsibilities included “identifying and locating unregistered businesses and business activities,” securing compliance and collection of license fees and required taxes.

When she had to take off to care for her children because she couldn’t afford home health care, the suit alleges that the department first approved her working part time from home, but then refused to pay for the work she did and then revoked her telecommuting privilege without any explanation.

According to the suit, Ms. Howell was blocked from downloading documents through her home computer when she tried to work from home, forcing her to go to City Hall to get them.

The suit also alleges that Finance Director John B. Wack then wrongly fired her for failing to return to the job while she was still eligible for leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides employees time to care for sick relatives.

According to the suit, Valerie Weatherless, finance operations manager for billing, enforcement and other aspects of the commissioner of revenue side of the office, recommended and Mr. Wack approved Ms. Howell’s termination even though they never followed federal regulations requiring them to notify Ms. Howell how much time she had left under FMLA and in wrongly calculating the time.

The suit alleges that Ms. Howell’s superiors, including Mr. Wack, “retaliated against (Ms. Howell) in violation of the FMLA” when she notified them that her children’s conditions were improving and that she would be able to return to the office in mid-May, or about 15 days after the deadline of April 30 that Mr. Wack had imposed.

Even before her children’s health conditions developed, the suit alleges that Mr. Wack, who became city finance director in 2016, imposed an “informal policy” barring department employees from receiving overtime as required by law when they worked more than 40 hours a week on city business.

“Ms. Howell frequently worked more than 40 hours a week,” the suit states, “especially during weeks in which she participated in late-night inspections and weekend festivals.”

According to the suit, Ms. Howell and her two colleagues in tax enforcement were “prohibited from recording in the city’s electronic time-keeping system more than 80 hours in any two-week period,” and if she did, “her time-keeping records were amended to reduce her recorded hours to exactly 80, denying her earned overtime wages.”

Previous lawsuits over city violations of laws governing overtime have led to settlements and policy changes involving police officers, firefighters and social workers.